A district court judge has ruled in favor of Houston leaders in a 4-year-old lawsuit, countering allegations that Mayor Sylvester Turner and the City Council illegally shortchanged the city’s drainage and street project funds.
A pair of engineers sued city officials in 2019 over their approach to funding Houston’s drainage and street program, Build Houston Forward. Judge Christine Weems on Thursday granted the city defendants’ “plea to the jurisdiction,” meaning she agreed the court does not have the legal authority to decide on the matter.
“The court finds that the method and math that the city of Houston is using to allocate the funds is consistent with the charter,” Weems said.
The dispute stemmed from a charter amendment approved by voters in 2010, which required the city to dedicate 11.8 cents of every $100 in property tax — or “an amount equivalent” — to a pay-as-you-go fund for street and drainage repair and renewals.
The plaintiffs, Allen Watson and Bob Jones, both campaigned to place Build Houston Forward on the ballot in an effort to secure more investment for the city’s road and drainage system in the coming decades. They said the charter amendment mandated a straightforward formula.
“City of Houston voters have spoken, clearly and unequivocally, that 11.8 cents for every $100 of property valuation for which taxes are collected must go to the city’s drainage and streets,” the plaintiffs said in their request for summary judgment.
The city, on the other hand, opted for a lower “equivalent” using the same calculation used to determine Houston’s revenue cap. Whenever the tax rate drops because of the revenue cap, city defendants said, they have to decrease the drainage fund allocation proportionately.
Houston first used its “equivalent” math to reduce the funding flowing into the program in 2016, after it hit the revenue cap for the first time. This method has so far resulted in $419 million less being moved to the fund — enough to pay for a whole year’s worth of such projects, according to an analysis by the Houston Chronicle.
Mayor Sylvester Turner previously said funneling tens of millions more each year into this fund, while dealing with a revenue cap, could force the city to cut back on essential services such as police, fire and solid waste management.
City Attorney Arturo Michel said Thursday that the judge’s ruling affirmed the city’s position that varying methods can be used to compute the allocation for the drainage fund, while still remaining within the bounds of the city charter.
See here for the background and longer story about the suit that was published shortly before the verdict was announced. I will admit that my eyes glazed over in reading about all this, but it conforms with my firmly held belief that the revenue cap is dumb and bad and (like our dumb statewide “balanced budget” requirement) leads directly to all kinds of budgetary shenanigans because reality always beats silly arbitrary rules. If we ever manage to repeal the stupid revenue cap and we still experience questionable budget maneuvers, then I’ll be mad about it. Until then, what are ya gonna do?